‘Stand Dog and be Shot’: The Dragoons Pursuit of James Nisbet in 1685
In late April, 1685, James Nisbet was in hiding at a gentleman’s house somewhere near hills, muirs and bogs in Ayrshire. Earlier in the year, Nisbet had evaded taking the Abjuration oath which renounced the Societies’ ‘war’ on their persecutors.
‘The young gentleman with whom I stayed did not take the oath, neither any of my family, whose names with the the names of all others that refused it were taken up by the enemy, and my name among the rest as an enemy of the their government.’ (Nisbet, ‘Narrative’, 62.)
The Abjuration was pressed in parishes across the South and West, including Nisbet’s native Loudoun parish, between mid January and mid February. James Nisbet was a son of the fugitive, John Nisbet in Hardhill. He had recently become old enough to be encompassed in the pressing of oaths. His failure to take the oath made him a fugitive.
Nisbet’s dates in the section of his narrative that follows appear to be slightly out, as the house preaching he mentions as having taken place on 27 April almost certainly took place on Sunday 26 April.
The preacher was Alexander Peden. Patrick Walker also recorded a version of Nisbet’s encounter with Peden a year or so after Nisbet died. Nisbet’s narrative provides a rare opportunity to compare one of Walker’s stories about Peden with an eyewitness account.
‘In the 26th of April following, it pleased God of his good providence to send that great man Mr Al[exande]r Peden to the gentlemans house where I was. April 27th he preached in the 10th chapter of John, from which he spoke long and well, with application to the present times. After he ended he paused a while as if he had been meditating, and then, with a great emotion of spirit broke silence, & said with a loud voice, Cursed by they in the name of the Lord, that speaks of my being come to Scotland (for he was but come from Ireland a few weeks before) and it was known to us afterwards that a wicked malicious woman died at the very same hour that he pronounced the curse upon her, go and inform the enemy of him, & where he was, however, not withstanding of what God has warned him, and he us of, yet we all went to bed securely; where I dreamed the whole night of what [>p63.] Befel us the next day.’ (Nisbet, ‘Narrative’, 62-3.)
Peden’s sermon was on the tenth chapter of John, ‘…He that entereth not by the door into the sheepfold, but climbeth up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber…’, features similar sheepfold imagery to his sermon on the herdsman prophet Amos at Craigminn, which he probably preached within a couple of months of his sermon in the gentleman’s house.
Nisbet does not mention why the dragoons and other forces of foot and horse were scouring the wilderness. They were probably not specifically in pursuit of Peden’s house conventicle. Probably the main reason for their presence was an attack, probably on Saturday 25 April, on the Ducat Tower at Newmilns in Loudoun parish. The Tower, which was garrisoned by Inglis’ dragoons, was stormed by Society people in a dramatic rescue of prisoners who had been seized at Little Blackwood. One of James Nisbet’s kin on his mother’s side, John Law, was killed attacking the tower.
As a result of both actions, government forces were quickly deployed into the hills and muirs of that quarter of Ayrshire. As well as Inglis’ dragoons, Nisbet encountered a second party of dragoons, a party of foot and horse, and John Graham of Claverhouse’s force of horse and Highlanders within a few days, the latter either on, or just after, 1 May. Claverhouse’s correspondence reveals that he entered Ayrshire at Muirkirk parish and then headed via Newmiln parish to Galston, which he reached on 3 May. All the evidence points to either Muirkirk parish, or the parishes which surround it in Ayrshire, as the location for Nisbet’s flight from the dragoons.
It appears that Nisbet and Peden were caught up in the sweeps which followed the attack on Newmilns Tower:
‘In the morning before 9 O’Clock we saw a troop of dragoons coming at the full gallop, & Mr Peden and those that were with him in this house fled, which we who were at work knowing nothing of; But we ran every one as providence directed, and the watchful providence of God who was ever kind to me, led me as by the hand, to a moss two miles distant from where we were working, to which these with Mr Peden were fled for shelter, which I knew nothing of till I came hither; The way to it was very step and ascending ground. Two of the Dragoons pursued me very hard, but spying another man they pursued him off at the right hand of my way; they fired at him, but it pleased the Lord he escaped at that time. Other two of them came in chase of me, and I was sore put to it for my life. The day was very hot, the sun bright in my face, and the way mountainous, yet the Lord was very kind to me, and enabled me to run, I sometimes had thoughts of turning to this hand, or to the other, and also I often had thoughts of diving in [>p64.] the moss water pitts, and saving my head among the rushes but yet I was overpowered to keep on in my way to that part of the moss where the rest were at the edge of which was a bogg about 10 or 18 yards broad, to which my good guardian hand providence brought me at last and here the Lord was a present help in the time of need to me; – for just as I got through the bogg and drawing myself out of it by the heather of the moss, the two dragoons came to the other side, and seeing they could not not get through to me, they bade me stand dog and be shot; they fired upon me, but God directed the ball by my left ear. I finding that I had escaped the shot ran further into the moss and kind providence led me just where my persecuted friends were lurking in a moss hagg about twenty in number & at meeting of whom I was gladly surprised: But being sore out of breath it was sometime before I could speak any.
We stayed there till seeing a second troop [of dragoons] join the first and dismount to take the moss on their feet, and search us out. After [>p65.] some firing on both sides without any execution done, we draw off and travelled through the midst of the moss. They seeing that horsed again and persued us by the edge of the moss. But we always kept ourselves on such ground where horses could not come. We ran that day hither and thither forward and backward about thirty miles and got no manner of refreshment but moss water to drink all night that each of us got a drink of milk.’ (Nisbet, ‘Narrative’, 63-5.)
Nisbet’s party was pursued all day, from the morning of Monday 27 April. In the evening, Peden parted from Nisbet, presumably with a section of his followers:
‘Mr P[eden]. left these that were with him and went one way and I left them and went another. I lay all night far from any house amongst the heather.’ (Nisbet, ‘Narrative’, 65.)
After the thirty mile pursuit through the hills, muirs and bogs, Peden went to the house of John Brown at Priesthill in Muirkirk parish on the night of 29 to 30 April.
On the morning of 28 April, Nisbet was probably somewhere near to the march boundary between Ayrshire and Lanarkshire:
‘Tomorrow when I awaked after the sun rose, I saw about 200 horse and foot marching all the country round about far and near, but I seeing no way of escape unobserved by the enemy kept close amongst the heather, and so kind and condescending was the Lord to me, that not one of them came near the place where I was so tender was he to me, that he pityed my weak mind and fatigued body and laid me no mor on we than I was able to bear. All praise honour and glory be [>p66.] to him forever. But still all this while, I was strongly impressed with apprehensions of more trouble to follow & that I must say altho that it hath pleased the Lord many times to exercise me with unforeseen and surprizing dispensations of providence at other times I have often times had passages of approaching troubles & tryals, & it was so just now.’ (Nisbet, ‘Narrative’, 65-6.)
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